Lies, damned lies and "corporate bulls**t": A consumer's guide to bad-faith arguments

Co-author Donald Cohen on the research into generations of false claims that led to "Corporate Bulls**t"

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published October 29, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Activists hold a banner reading "Business as usual is killing us" as they take part in an protest by the Extinction Rebellion climate change group, along Whitehall towards Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, in central London on September 3, 2020 on the third day of their new series of 'mass rebellions'. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Activists hold a banner reading "Business as usual is killing us" as they take part in an protest by the Extinction Rebellion climate change group, along Whitehall towards Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, in central London on September 3, 2020 on the third day of their new series of 'mass rebellions'. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Corporate bulls**t is everywhere around us, like the atmosphere of capitalism. I don't just mean advertisements for specific commodities, although that's everywhere too, but propaganda for an entire worldview that encompasses obvious things, like climate denialism or opposition to universal health care, taxing the rich or enforcing regulations, and also deeper and sometimes surprising things. The scale of this can seem overwhelming, and making sense of it can seem impossible. That's where the new book "Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power, and Wealth in America" comes in.

As co-author Nick Hanauer, host of the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast, writes in the preface, "while there is simply no bottom to this well of shamelessness" — meaning corporate bullshit, of course — "there is a pattern.” Not only is this pattern simple, the authors argue, it’s remarkably comprehensive. Once you learn it, you'll see it everywhere. Better yet, you'll learn how to see through it systematically, through six categories that begin with denial, and then a series of fallback strategies and retreats ending in plaintive cries of catastrophe. 

Two things make "Corporate Bullsh*t" particularly compelling. The first is the wealth of illustrative quotes that are both hilarious and insightful, showing how those who deploy this kind of propaganda will use almost identical arguments generations or even centuries apart. I wasn't prepared for how much fun this would be, resulting in multiple LOL moments.

The second is the way the logic of the fallback strategies within corporate bullshit flow easily from one to the next, like a skillful salesperson's pitch. Seeing them explored in this serial fashion, with one failed argument giving way to the next, exposes the internal logic of corporate bullshit as essentially driven by desperation: Ultimately, there's no there there, and those who deploy these lies actually know it.

While co-authors Hanauer and Joan Walsh, the Nation columnist and former editor of Salon, are no doubt better known, it was the workhorse research of Donald Cohen, the founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, that laid the foundation for the book. Cohen shared some of what he learned from me in this interview, which has been edited for clarity and length. 

Corporate propaganda is such a vast and omnipresent phenomenon. How did you manage to identify a small set of categories that capture so much of it

Through a lot of research. The original idea, almost 10 years ago, where I started to see these arguments over and over again in the work I was doing. Then I started to look back and say, “Well, did we hear those same arguments when they passed the minimum wage, or the Clean Air Act?” 

So the project was really about collecting the quotes and then after getting a whole lot of quotes, probably a thousand, and then stepping back and saying, “OK, there's a pattern here.” So the pattern came from the assembly of quotes on dozens and dozens of different issues. I looked at every new regulatory law, starting with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and it became clear that there's a game, there's a playbook.

So the first category you start with is denial. In other words, with the argument, “It's not a problem.” What's a common example of that?

Currently climate change, of course. Go back a little bit, it was tobacco: Not a problem, doesn't hurt anything. Go back a little further and you'll find the argument that lead is healthy. Lead is good for you! In all these cases — and there are many others — corporations and others already had research saying exactly the opposite, that these things were harmful. 

The most striking example you give goes back much longer, all the way to the era of slavery, which illustrates the tendency to go beyond denial, when some supporters of slavery argued it was a positive good. That seems like an extreme example, but how does it help us understand and respond to the pattern as a whole? 

Because at the core of the propaganda is self-interest. It was in the self-interest of the plantation owners and other folks in the South to defend slavery when it was under attack. So the best defense is an offense: This thing your attacking isn't only not bad, it's actually good.

So the next category is that if there is actually a problem, "the free market knows best" and will fix it. What's a common example of that one? 

There's so many. Think of auto safety. If people demand seat belts, then auto manufacturers will make cars with seat belts. If workplaces are unsafe, workers won't want to work there, unless they get paid more. So the market takes care of that, and people who are willing to do unsafe jobs can make their own decision in the market. 

There's a great quote on this from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "Employers do not allow work conditions to exist which cause injury or illness. Safety is good business." So individual choice in the market takes care of things. If there is demand for healthier food or safer cars or drugs that don't have debilitating side effects, then the market will take care that because companies will just get it.

You cite civil rights legislation as providing a classic case study of the role this argument has played in our history. How prominent was this argument in response to civil rights laws. What's a particularly outrageous example?  

"If people demand seat belts, then auto manufacturers will make cars with seat belts. If workplaces are unsafe, workers won't want to work there, unless they get paid more. So individual choice in the market takes care of things."

The market basically says we are all free agents and are able to negotiate with one another to buy and sell goods and services. So segregationists and racists who didn't want to serve Black people believed that was their right because this is a private business, a private lunch counter, I can decide who I will serve or not serve. That's freedom. That's how the market should work. Ayn Rand said, "Private racism is not a legal issue, it's a moral issue." People should be able to decide who they want or don't want to associate with. That's how the market works: We decide what we want to buy or don't want to buy, and that should be the same for who we serve and don't want to serve. 

This argument was central in the 1960s, wasn't it? 

Well, we have a quote from George Wallace and from folks who were opposing the Civil Rights Bill. It was very much about "freedom to choose," a phrase we know know from Milton Friedman's work. But the freedom to choose who you want to associate with, who you want to sell things to, who you go to school with, was very much part of the language of the segregationists and the racists in the '50s, '60s and '70s. And we're seeing the same arguments today. The "freedom to choose" is really about market fundamentalism. We're all individuals.As Margaret Thatcher said, there's no such thing as "society."

The next category is about shifting the blame: "It’s not our fault, it’s your fault." What's a common example of this? 

We see a lot of that in workplace safety. If there's a coal mining accident, it was because a miner made a mistake, so it's their fault, and the only solution is to educate the miners or fire the ones who don't do a good job. Which of course ignores the systems and the working conditions that are entirely within the control of the mining company. 

And we hear that a lot in auto safety: It's not unsafe cars, it's "the nut behind the wheel." That was the response when Ralph Nader showed up on the scene and wanted to create safer cars. There's a great quote I'll share when the loss of the ozone layer was first being recognized as a problem,and they were trying to regulate CFCs. Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior said in 1987, "Well, people who don't stand out in the sun, it doesn't affect them." Meaning that it's not our responsibility to save the planet: Just don't stand out in the sun! 

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We heard the same thing with smokers and opioid use: Individual behavior is the problem here. As it was becoming clear that there was an opioid problem and there was an increasing numbers of addiction problems and overdoses and deaths, the Sackler family, who owned and created Purdue Pharma, made a conscious strategic decision to blame the victim: It's just people who become addicts because they have flawed characters. It's not our responsibility. We do all the right things. 

The case study for blame-shifting would tort reform, with the classic example of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck. For those who don't know that story, or may have forgotten the details, what happened to her and how was it spun to blame her?

She bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald's in 1992. McDonald's policy was to create very hot coffee, for whatever reason. She got in her car and put the coffee between her legs, it spilled and she got third-degree burns. The coffee was 180 to 190 degrees, super, super hot. She required skin grafts, had large hospital bills, it was serious, she was 79 years old. So what the joke, and the counterargument, became was that a 79-year-old lady couldn't manage her cup of coffee. She sued and won a substantial settlement but that was usedby McDonald's and various conservatives to argue, “Well, she should've known the coffee was hot.” 

What makes these arguments in the book so interesting to me is that there's a degree of plausibility with many of them, and that's the secret to their weaponry, the secret to their trade — semi-plausible arguments that at their core are ridiculous. So McDonald's had a responsibility not to make coffee that burned you, that scalded you. She certainly should not have held her coffee between her legs, no question about it. But she didn't make the coffee. I don't know anybody who makes their coffee at 190 degrees, that's nearly boiling. 

Also she didn't start off trying to sue McDonald's for millions. 

Yeah, actually she just wanted her hospital bills and medical bills paid. That's exactly right. She said, “You are responsible for this. I suffered, and I just want you to pay for it.” And they went to denial, “It is not our fault,” and then a bigger lawsuit happened. They were found guilty and the jury awarded her a sizable amount of money. 

That case was used as a poster child for "tort reform." How did they build on that?

"What makes these arguments in the book so interesting is that there's a degree of plausibility with many of them, and that's the secret to their weaponry, the secret to their trade — semi-plausible arguments that at their core are ridiculous."

Well, it became about how we're a litigious society. An old lady spilled her coffee and got a million bucks out of it. It's the lawyers' fault. The lawyers are ambulance chasers. Often things like this become tropes, the simple story that tells a bigger story. This is the one that said, “Lawyers are out of control, they're suing about everything and they're taking companies' money.” That became one of the emblematic stories that was used over and over" “A lady spills her coffee and gets a million bucks. That’s what’s wrong with America today!"

In your introduction, you refer to "threats masquerading as economic theories." With the last three categories, this really comes to the fore. The first of them is, "It’s a job killer." I’ve encountered this a lot as a journalist through the years, especially from the California Chamber of Commerce. What’s a common example more generally?

If you raise the minimum wage, it will be a job killer, thousands of people will lose their jobs. That's a super-common one. But I did a lot of work on this. Every law and regulation that would impose requirements on businesses — to raise wages, to provide health care, to spend money on safer jobs or products — pretty much everything gets this argument. 

This is not in the book, but in the '70s and '80s farmworkers in California were forced to use short-handled hoes because the growers said that was better for dealing with the crops. The farmworkers wanted long-handled hoes, because it hurt their backs to kneel down all day. I got the transcripts from the hearings and basically they said "This will kill jobs. This will destroy agriculture, if you create a long-handled hoe." Something that made it easier for workers to go home at night and still be healthy.

This comes up virtually everywhere — in drug safety laws, environmental laws, paid family leave, auto safety, auto emissions. We have Lee Iacocca talking about the Clean Air Act of 1970. He said, "This bill could prevent continued production of automobiles and is a threat to the entire economy and every person in America." That was the argument against making our air cleaner and building automobiles to produce less pollutants. 

The next threat is, "You’ll only make it worse." What's a common example of this one? 

I go back to the minimum wage again. The idea is that you hurt the very people you're trying to help by this law. Every time you try to pass a minimum wage, it would be, “Well, you'll hurt poor Black teenagers, because then if the wages are higher, no one will hire them.”  

Medicare or Medicaid will make the problem worse. You'll destroy private initiative. You actually hurt people if you give them free care because they become irresponsible. With unemployment insurance, you'll hurt those people because they will become dependent on the government and not only will that burden taxpayers, it will destroy their personal dignity. If you give people something you hurt them, because it weakens their dignity, it creates illegitimacy as they used to call it, it will make poor people poorer.

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Another example is that if you regulate auto emissions and make cars more efficient, people won't buy them. They'll be more expensive, and poor people will still buy dirtier polluting cars. So anti-pollution laws will actually create more pollution.

Let me read one about women's suffrage. "Women's participation in political life would involve the domestic calamity of a deserted home and the loss of womanly qualities for which we find men adore women and and marry them. Doctors tell us too that thousands of children would be harmed or killed before birth by the injurious effect of untimely political excitement on their mothers." 

"We cannot get rid of slavery without producing a greater injury to both the masters and the slaves." This stuff goes all the way back. 

In your case study on the welfare debate, what's an over-the-top example that people might not know about, and what's the reality? 

So here's one: "Concern for the poor is often equated with expanding government programs... The reality is that, in many cases, government policy can make it more difficult for those striving to make ends meet." That's from the Heritage Foundation. They're basically spelling out exactly the theme of this chapter. You provide welfare — they're talking about food stamps, Medicaid, services for lower-income people — that will make it harder for them to live a decent life. I actually don't understand that argument. It's crazy, to my mind.

"In reality, people who receive benefits become less poor. It does not create dependency. People still go out and get jobs. If you feed children, they do better in life. If you give them health care, they are healthier and do better in life."

In reality, people who receive benefits become less poor. It does not create dependency. People still go out and get jobs. Access to food stamps in childhood leads to a significant reduction in obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, and to an increase in economic self-sufficiency. If you feed children, they do better in life. If you give them health care, they are healthier and do better in life. There's common sense and there's tons of research that bears that out. 

The final threat is a familiar one: "It’s socialism!" What's a common example? 

The creation of an income tax. "It may be impracticable that our distinctively American experiment of individual freedom should go on." That's a quote from 1894, when they began trying to tax income. It's basically saying if you pass taxes, American freedom will disappear. "The lash of the dictator will be felt, and 25 million free American citizens will for the first time submit themselves to a fingerprint test." That was for Social Security. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the minimum wage, "is a step in the direction of communism, Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism." That's from 1938.

Over and over again, government regulations that  require behaviors from businesses that ultimately cost them money are seen as state control, and anything that the state does is called socialist. Biden is called socialist now because of the infrastructure act and because of a set of policies which are decidedly not socialist. But that has been the attack line for over a century, and still is today, against everything we try to do that makes people's lives better, that reduces pollution, that eliminates structural discrimination and racism, virtually everything. 

You end the book with some recommendations about how to fight back. Can you briefly describe them?

The first thing is I would say is that the purpose of the book is to be a vaccine. Like I said earlier, these arguments often have a a patina of possibility, they sound good. They've been processed by PR professionals. So the first thing is to identify that the argument you're hearing is one of those six. That's the first thing we set out to do. 

Part of the way to do that is to figure out who's saying it. Is this coming from industry, is this coming from a PR company, a think tank, or Chamber of Commerce, or industry association, is it coming from a politician who is close to the business community or is a free market fundamentalist? That's the first thing. 

The second thing is to say, “OK, that's familiar. Have I heard it before?” And go back and look, so we can say, “Oh, they said that in 1906 and they said that in 1930, and the world didn't come to an end when our meat was safer or when our drugs are safer.” Then make that point in public: "Wait a second. You said it before, it didn't happen. You said again it, didn't happen. And now you're saying it now. Why should we take you seriously?” 

Of course, once you've done that, it's also really important to reassert why we want to do this thing in the first place. Why we want more people to have health care, why we want cleaner air. Those things are in the public interest and a vital, urgent public need that we need to attack together. It's really important always to assert those things. Because the arguments in this book are about self-interest, and we want to say, “No — we're concerned about the public interest, about everybody.” 

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what’s the answer?

How come this works so well, over and over again? The answer would be because there's an enormous amount of money and self interest that is driving, influencing and impacting public decisions about public things, meaning health and safety and jobs and all that. It's about power. The book is about power, and propaganda, if you have resources — which corporate interests certainly do — is one of the key tools in the tool chest to maintain that power. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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